When Execs Told Norman Lear To Tone Down ‘All In The Family,’ He Threatened To End The Show


Television producer Norman Lear always had very specific visions and goals in mind when airing All in the Family. Whenever network executives wanted to dictate how he plotted and wrote out his ‘70s sitcom, Lear refused to compromise – and was ready to hit the kill switch on the whole thing if need be.

No matter the field, creatives often face the threat of having their vision shaped by forces not in tune with their artistic vision. Dollar signs or status quo have been excellent motivators for television executives. Lear, who died on December 5 at the age of 101, is remembered by the cast and crew he worked with for All in the Family as not just the glue but the guiding light that inspired them all to tell real stories others could relate to – and to put their full effort into doing it.


Norman Lear and his colleagues note his dedication to ‘All in the Family’ and its stories

All in the Family addressed just about any and ever topic / Farooz Zahedi / TV Guide / ©CBS / courtesy Everett Collection

Staying in the mold is safe; breaking the mold comes with risks of getting cut. Lear shattered the mold with abandon in big and small ways.


RELATED: ‘Sanford And Son’ Actor Demond Wilson Reflects On Norman Lear’s Life

“The network at the beginning was horrified by topical humor,” Lear once revealed, “Don’t talk about Nixon because when we go into reruns and he isn’t around anymore the shows won’t sell.’ But it doesn’t really matter what the men say. You are watching a father and his son-in-law. The behavior is what is important.”

Real human behaviors and emotions were what Lear wanted to show most. “In a medium where one sees too little of it, you can watch Edith and Archie relating and find something universal and interesting,” he mused.

“Nobody shaped Norman’s shows except for Norman,” said Alan Wagner, former East Coast vice president of programming with CBS. “He was willing to listen to good advice from anybody. But he was not going to sit still to someone dictating to him things he didn’t believe in.”

This stubborn dedication was noticed by Lear’s peers. “He was more than anything the force that pushed us to be better,” said Rob Reiner, known as Michael “Meathead” Stivic. “Norman would force us to want to dig deeper, always dig deeper, dig deeper. He wanted it to go further.”

Lear threatened to completely stop ‘All in the Family’ if networks tried to get him to reel it in too much

Lear told execs he would end All in the Family completely if they tried to play it safe / © Amazon Prime Video / Courtesy Everett Collection

Just about any topic ended up being on the table for All in the Family, to the chagrin of network higher-ups. Subjects included faith, miscarriages, infidelity, racism, women’s rights, marriage equality, cancer, and even sexual assault.

The network tried to put a hard limit on the boundaries Lear would cross and he met them with resistance every time. Whenever execs got too insistent, he simply threatened to end the show completely.

Rob Reiner called Lear not just the glue but the guiding light for the cast and crew / ©CBS/Courtesy Everett Collection

All in the Family endured 205 episodes across nine seasons – compare that to programs today that can barely secure 20 episodes before ending up canceled. At first, the show’s future wasn’t totally secure but there was no denying the unique lightning in a bottle Lear had produced.

“The first time or two there were threats of lawsuits,” Lear revealed. “I would say, ‘Back up the truck and take my house and furniture.’ But I knew they couldn’t take my wife and children.” Lear and his show were not something the network execs could risk losing; All in the Family is just one of three shows that stayed at number one in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive TV seasons; the others are The Cosby Show and American Idol.

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